Joseph L. Young: Jewish knight of religious art

For many of us seeking a connection to our synagogue environments this High Holy Days season, the work of a mid-century Jewish Los Angeles artist, Joseph L. Young, will once again be giving us an assist by opening our eyes to the possibilities of religious art.
September 9, 2015

For many of us seeking a connection to our synagogue environments this High Holy Days season, the work of a mid-century Jewish Los Angeles artist, Joseph L. Young, will once again be giving us an assist by opening our eyes to the possibilities of religious art.

Joseph L. Young.  Photo courtesy of Leslie Young

Neither kitschy nor sanctimonious, Young, working in his Melrose Avenue studio from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, designed many of the sanctuary interiors and artwork of Southland synagogues, Jewish community centers and monuments, as well as several important civic installations. He even made works for churches, among which is a major mosaic he created for the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

Although in his lifetime he was well known both nationally and internationally, in recent years his work may have become “a little invisible,” according to Ruth Weisberg, a well-known Los Angeles artist herself, and the former dean of the School of Fine Arts at USC.

Young’s work, in fact, is such an often-seen, yet under-acknowledged element of the Southland’s Jewish landscape that although he designed the ark and large stained-glass window at Temple Beth Emet in Anaheim, where I grew up, I did not recognize his works when I saw them in other Jewish settings.

Above: Ark and the Twelve Tribes of Israel sculpture at Temple Beth Emet in Anaheim. Below: Detail from  the Twelve Tribes by Joseph L. Young. Photo by Edmon J. Rodman

At my bar mitzvah, I gave my speech standing behind a mosaic lectern Young designed, and at my wedding, I stood under a chuppah flanked on either side by a white marble column inscribed with six of his iconographic renderings of the Twelve Tribes. Yet, I did not know that this artist’s work extended far beyond my own synagogue into the public sphere: He is the same artist whose design credits include the multicolored fantastical “Triforium,” located in a Civic Center mall downtown, and the glooming granite towers of the Holocaust memorial monument that stands before the entrance to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in Pan Pacific Park.

I contacted one of the artist’s daughters, Leslie Young, and learned that among her father’s many commissions was artwork — arks, lecterns, eternal lights, mosaics and stained-glass windows — created for several Southland synagogues, including Congregation B’nai B’rith in Santa Barbara; Temple Beth Torah in Alhambra; Temple B’nai Emet in Montebello; Temple Sinai in Glendale; Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach; Sinai Temple and Temple Tifereth Israel in West L.A.; Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills; Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad of Los Angeles; Temple Solael in Canoga Park; the Brandeis Institute; Congregation Beth Knesset Bamidbar in Lancaster and many others, as well as the chapel design for Heritage Point, a Jewish retirement community in Mission Viejo.

“When he got a chance to do what he wanted, he would do everything down to the knobs,” another daughter, Cecily Young, a practicing architect, told me. He took spaces that lacked a special quality, “and his goal was to elevate them into the spiritual realm,” she said. “He would take blank vanilla spaces and transform them.” 

In fact, seeing his architectural models as a child, and learning from them what her father could achieve was, in part, what inspired her to become an architect, she said.

“He used lighting, color and materials with specific references to inspirational passages in the Bible to guide what he was thinking of for a particular synagogue,” she said. “He loved to draw flames. One of his favorite themes [was] the flames of the Burning Bush.”

“His relationship with Judaism was mostly expressed through his work,” daughter Leslie said. And unlike some artists of the mid-century era, a time when anti-Semitism in America was more prevalent, he “was not afraid to be identified as a Jewish artist,” Weisberg, who knew Young, said.

Young also was highly principled. When offered a teaching job at UCLA in the 1950s, during the McCarthy era, he turned down the offer because the school required him to take a loyalty oath.

Young was born in 1919 in Pittsburgh. He grew up in an Orthodox home in Aliquippa, Pa., and had a bar mitzvah. His father, Louis, a Ukrainian immigrant, was a merchant who ran a variety store. His mother, Jennie, a Romanian immigrant, studied design and millinery at what is now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Young graduated with a degree in English and journalism from Westminster College, in New Wilmington, Pa., in 1941, the school from which he would later receive an honorary doctorate of letters for his professional accomplishments. He worked as a journalist in Pittsburgh and New York City from 1941 to 1943.

In Pittsburgh, he met pianist Millicent Goldstein at a concert and they married in 1949. In 1952, they both won fellowships at the American Academy in Rome, she to study music and he to study fresco and stained glass. While in Italy, Young discovered the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna and Venice that would influence his use of mosaic tile ever after.

In 1952, the Youngs moved to Los Angeles after getting fellowships from the Huntington Hartford foundation. Their two daughters, Leslie and Cecily, both live here.

Young’s studio was at 8426 Melrose Ave. along with his gallery and retail space, where he sold Italian mosaics and mosaic supplies, Leslie said. That was where he designed his commissions, including one he received in 1953 for the Parker Center, the Los Angeles Police Department’s headquarters, and another 16-panel mosaic illustrating the history of mathematics for UCLA’s Math Sciences Building, which was installed in 1968.

Because his mosaic designs, for which he was best known, were so labor intensive, Young would often enlist the help of student artists, said Leslie, whose own career has been as a marketing executive and producer in advertising and commercial film production.

Detail from Young mosaic in foyer of Temple Emanuel. Man, woman and baby represented are loosely based on Joseph Young, wife Millicent and baby daughter. Photo courtesy of Leslie Young

Sometimes the mosaic work even required the help of the whole family, including their mother and grandmother, Cecily said; she added that, as a child, she helped complete the work on the “brain” portion of the UCLA math building mosaic, which is represented by concentric circles. “My father knew I loved mazes,” she said.

As for “Triforium,” which Young called the “poly-phonoptic kinetic tower,” it was “one of his greatest achievements and also one of his greatest disappointments,” Leslie said. The six-story sculpture, installed in 1975, is located in the Los Angeles Mall, at Temple and Main streets, near the Civic Center. Using lighted-glass prisms imported from Venice and a carillon that played music operated by an underground computer, Young thought of the piece as a new symbol for Los Angeles.

“It was groundbreaking in terms of public art,” Weisberg said.

However, not everyone welcomed the work. Referring to its high cost, which Leslie attributed to a redesign in the wake of the Sylmar earthquake in 1971, a writer from the Los Angeles Times referred to the piece as a “million-dollar jukebox.”

Renovations of Young’s high-relief mosaic and granite mural on downtown’s Los Angeles County Hall of Records, and his mural “The House of Prayer, the House of Assembly, The House of Study,” in the foyer of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, have preserved these works for future generations. However, Young’s work has not fared as well in some other locations.

At Eden Memorial Park, where Young is buried — he died in 2007 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s — a mosaic arch he created depicting symbols of the Twelve Tribes of Israel has been damaged. “Some of the stones have been removed by some people who wanted to put them on graves,” said Leslie, who said she has informed Eden’s management that the work is in need of repair and protection.

Most in jeopardy is Young’s monumental 6-by-36-foot mosaic at Parker Center. When the building was shuttered in January of 2013, the city wanted to demolish it, raising the call for preservation of Young’s work, which depicts iconic Los Angeles landmarks such as the Griffith Observatory, City Hall and the Angel’s Flight tramway on Broadway. “We’re pressing for the preservation of the building and the retention of these artworks,” said Adrian Fine, director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy, who noted that both Young’s mosaic mural and a bronze sculpture on the exterior of the building by artist Bernard J. Rosenthal are an “integral part of Parker Center.”

Fine added, “The question is still very much in a decision process with the city right now.”

More hopeful is the story of Young’s mosaic depicting family, which once hung in the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center. After the center closed in 2009, the work was put up for auction. Fortunately, Leslie was able to buy back the work. Meant for public enjoyment, like much of her father’s work, she is interested in finding the “right home for it,” she said.

Among Young’s many awards is one for his contributions to a resurgence in the United States of the use of Italian mosaic and stained glass in mid-century art, for which he was knighted by the Italian government.

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